Volume 52   Number 1 Winter 2019

From the President

Brad_Olsen.jpgBradley Olsen
National Louis University Chicago

Given that National Louis University is hosting the 2019 SCRA Biennial I thought it would be good to introduce you here to the university itself, and to our Community Psychology PhD program. The program is close to my heart, where I have worked for almost 10 years, and where, despite our large size (over 50 alumni and 70 active students) we are still a lesser known program. Seymour Sarason, in his book On the Creation of Settings and of Future Societies, guides us on how to look at more hidden aspects of context around a new setting: its history, pre-existing settings, and the current organizational surroundings.

 National Louis University (NLU) was founded in 1886 by Elizabeth Harrison, a compatriot of Jane Addams. Harrison worked with immigrant mothers and their children, leading to the development of a college to train teachers, the National College of Education, which eventually became National Louis. For over 130 years, National Louis has attempted to help underserved students with better access to and 

success in higher education to increase the social mobility among their families and improve their communities. In 2007, NLU advertised for and hired its first community psychologist, Suzette Fromm-Reed, to develop the program. Suzette sought established advisors such as Ed Trickett and Susan McMahon, and, largely from scratch, she designed a curriculum sequence and cohort model, blending adult-educational models at National Louis with features of existing CP programs across the country. The NLU community psychology program was the university’s first and continues to be its only PhD program.

The program now includes five core and four affiliated faculty for a total of 9 full-time professors. Suzette (trained at NC state) hired Judah Viola (trained at DePaul), who has now become Dean of the college. They then hired me (trained at DePaul, Iowa, and Northwestern), and the three of us brought on Tiffeny Jimenez and Ray Legler (both trained at Michigan State). Judy Kent (originally an English professor at NLU who completed her PhD in our program) began teaching in our program as did our faculty member Wytress Richardson. Eventually our NLU PhD graduates Ericka Mingo, co-chair of the upcoming Biennial, and Jackie Samuel were hired in related academic programs (behavioral sciences and public administration) programs.

Fitting a New Programmatic Niche

Despite the strength of our field’s ideals it is sometimes hard for a graduate program to live up to those ideals. Institutions of higher education and the personalities within them are often intransigent when it comes to change. Therefore, even when norms or rules contradict our community psychology ideals, it is hard to break free from these persisting regularities. The administration at National Louis has allowed and even encouraged us to be innovative. This has helped us increase access for older adults to obtaining a PhD.

Throughout the country and probably the world the ability for an older adult to get a PhD is difficult, in some situations simply impossible. With a family and a stable job, stepping out to work on a PhD 24/7 is almost out of reach. Programs often prefer candidates who have undergraduate degrees on the same topic as the degree, and even if a candidate has a masters, those credits are often not counted. The older adult with a masters, even if they could get into the program, experiences strong disincentives. The National Louis model has created a more flexible, supportive and empowering structure that makes the PhD an enormous yet possible life goal.

Evolving Community Psychology Visions

The Swampscott beginnings of community psychology were in large part a reaction to problems of traditional graduate training in psychology. Swampscott was equally about a search for new areas of professional capacity that would allow the field better address societal injustices, particularly around issues of mental health. Much of the subsequent focus in the field emphasized looking beyond the professional and professional training (e.g., Cowen on informal helping; Albee around “manpower” and the need for paraprofessionals, and the focus on self-help/ peer-led groups). Possibly the clearest expression of the intersectionality of paraprofessionals and graduate training is the final chapter of Rappaport’s (1977) community psychology textbook. The chapter features a pyramid model that places the professional community psychologist at the pinnacle with graduate students and paraprofessionals underneath. Later Rappaport recognized that in an authentic theory of collaborative empowerment community members are not to be placed “under” community psychologists. Power differentials always exist, and we do not want to pretend they don’t. But at National Louis we actually are trying to invert this pyramid as much as possible. The “paraprofessionals” should be graduate students and eventually community psychologists. And part of making this happen authentically is to recognize when, in a graduate program, the experiential expertise of the student rises above faculty knowledge.

Valuing lived experiences and expertise

A number of the structural elements helped us at National Louis broaden the tent of community psychology to welcome some of the most amazing future and current community psychologists. Again, with most PhD programs it is rare that a student’s masters’ work, or the expertise that comes from working a decade in the field, “count”. In our PhD program, all students—most with extensive practice-based work—enter with a masters’ degree. The students move through as cohorts, taking, in general, one course night a week that goes approximately from 4pm to 10pm, allowing them to keep their full-time jobs. The courses occur year-round for these three years. The program includes courses in quantitative and qualitative methods, grant writing, prevention and intervention, program evaluation, advocacy, community development, field experience and many others. The program trajectory works to integrate into the courses much of what is required in the writing, design, and analysis of the dissertation.

Valuing Diversity

The key central tenet of community psychology here is diversity. Because of the ability to shift around academic structures and regularities, the PhD students reflect the diversity of the city of Chicago. This was the reality at National Louis before the PhD program. According to the 2013 U.S. News & World Report rankings, NLU is among the top 25 most diverse national universities. Of our roughly 140 students (13 cohorts) who have entered the program, 75% of our students have been African American and 15% were of Latinx descent. We have also had many students identifying with all kinds of intersectional identities: LGBTQ, formerly incarcerated, disabilities, international—from Nigeria, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy—all adding further depth and value to every discussion of diversity and culture.

A primary goal in the PhD program is to maintain academic rigor. As community psychologists we also know we cannot measure any student on a single dimension, particularly with regard to academic preparation. Thus, when we conducted analyses of students in the first 6 cohorts and found no predictive value of the GRE for student success, we eventually dropped the requirement. Each prospective student instead is interviewed by two faculty members who, with the student, determine if there is a good fit. We look at academic readiness, but also the student’s interest in helping community members in non-hierarchical ways, and the extent our setting could help that student become a better conceptualizer and actors of change within the community.

The incoming students (mean age of 44) have as much or more real-world experience (often 10 years or more of community practice) on a topical area than the faculty themselves. Students are therefore not coming into the program in order to advance faculty research or evaluation projects. There is no traditional apprentice model here. Sometimes there is a natural student-faculty match, but students choose the topic of research interest, where their passion lies: LGBTQ equality, resiliency among children of incarcerated parents, the assets of young mothers pursuing post-secondary education, Palestinian NGOs, and a hundred other topics. The faculty, as generalists, provide support, teach, and guide every step of the methodology and analysis of each dissertation. The sequence of the courses follows a trajectory, focusing heavily on community psychology practice competencies—consultation, prevention and promotion, community organizing—with extensive training on research methodology and analysis.

While students enter and most often leave the program as community practitioners, they receive extensive training in quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, and the majority of students end up with a mixed-methods dissertation.

The Future

Even new settings need to keep re-inventing themselves. In the past, one of our three-year cohorts met in a childcare center in the “Little Village” neighborhood as part of a partnership with a non-for-profit called El Valor. For the future we are considering new neighborhood locations, and an international online program.

A major focus for our future is on interconnections among alumni and existing students. Given that our students tend to be older and come from Chicago they also tend to stay local after graduation. Our hope is that they will remain connected with the program and continue to collaborate with us long after they obtain their PhDs. Several alumni are working together in developing an advocacy organization, and others are supporting a progressive candidate for Chicago mayor. We host conferences together. The social capital of increasing the number of community psychologists in positions of social justice power around the city and utilizing these networks to transform communities is part of our ultimate goal.

We have all sorts of challenges—faculty that is too ethnically homogeneous, difficulties in attracting and retaining male students, fostering mixed quantitative-qualitative projects that truly provide new, interesting, and useable knowledge, and strengthening that translation of research knowledge to practitioner-related futures. We believe that the culture we create in our programs, the way we treat students, should align with the values of our field. We should be part of educational experiences consistent with the fully participatory ways in which we approach community members. This requires reflexivity, going back before the beginning, back to our own training and the norms that seemed normal then, but which were at times inconsistent with the ideals of community psychology values. Let’s uncover those unconscious regularities and challenge them together.

And then in the very near future is the Biennial. The National Louis team looks forward to meeting many more of you in person and seeing you this June!


Brad Olson

President of SCRA

Associate Professor, National Louis University Chicago